Saturday, July 10, 2010


This is the post where I complain. Overall this is a good program, and I'm having a good time for sure, but there are things about it that drive me a little nuts, some cultural, some administrative, some bureaucratic and handed down from Washington.

One, I have to say I completely disagree wit the teaching philosophy. This is a CLS thing, orders from DC. The idea is to use a 'communicative teaching style' (to use Pak Peter's favorite phrase), which, as he explains it, means that all the lessons have to do with communicating in a real-life situation, no grammar explanations, no drills, no vocab lists, no translation. Use of dictionaries are discouraged, as is writing down vocab as it comes up in class. No English at all, which means new words have to be explained by charades and explanation in Indonesian. Rather than explain what, for example, the -kan suffix means and how to use it, we're supposed to internalize it from hearing it in conversation and from being corrected when we speak – no conscious learning, since that's easily forgotten later; this should all be subconscious learning, absorbing the language by hearing it around us.

Which is great, except that dictionaries and translation exercises and grammar explanations are useful. The whole subconscious learning thing is great when you're five; we all learned our first languages that way, and look how well it worked. But here we're a bunch of 20-somethings, the critical period is long past, that part of the brain is shut down, and if I don't consciously learn a word and hang it on some well-marked mental hook, I'm not going to learn it at all. Correct me for misusing -kan in a sentence and I'll know how it works in that sentence; tell me the rule and I can apply it more broadly. And I spent a solid few days in the body parts unit thinking that gigi 'teeth' meant 'smile' – charades are great, but sometimes you've really gotta look it up.

Luckily a lot of those instructions are pretty well ignored in my little Beginner 2 class, since it's almost exclusively taught by peer tutors rather than higher-ups. The three of us have notebooks out and dictionaries at the ready at all times, and we even get grammar in class if we request it. Plus, I'm a linguist, if I want the answer to an Indonesian grammar question I know where to find it (and thank goodness for Google books making my favorite source for that available). The real problem is in the Beginner 1 class, everyone who came in knowing nothing about the language and would really like to know how things work. That and having to listen to Pak Peter every week at our group meeting explain that no, we can't do X thing the students requested, because it's not communicative, and this is a communicative program. What does he think we're doing the other 19 hours a day when we're not in class? I'll give you a hint: we're communicating, mostly with Indonesians, in Indonesian. A little more explicit explanation in class really wouldn't hurt us. The one concession (and don't tell the State Department!) is that we now have an hour of grammar class on Tuesday afternoons after lunch, where English can be used for explanation. We can't take class time for grammar, (except when my class does anyway) but an hour after class can be arranged. On the one hand it's really helpful; on the other hand we're completely overscheduled as is, and I'd love to have the free time to explore Malang or just decompress.

Along with this very circumscribed teaching method comes precise instructions about how we're supposed to learn. Don't write things down! Don't memorize vocab! As Judith pointed out, those of us who got into the program are here because we're successful students already, and we got where we are because we know what works for us in terms of learning styles and what doesn't. Personally, I've been a full-time student for 17 years and this is the fourth foreign language I've studied seriously; I think by now I know what I'm doing. And yes, I will write down those words, thanks.

Problem #2 is that we're so overbooked in this program that there's very little time to get to see Malang and its surroundings. Typical weekday: wake up around 6, get ready for school, class for 5 hours, lunch at school, group meeting/grammar hour/culture class, home for dinner, two or three hours to check email, do homework, interact with my host family, bed. Fridays we have excursions; same most Saturdays and Sundays. Last week's schedule included a trip to Mt Kawi Thursday after class (home at 1am), class Friday followed by the 4th of July party at Pak Peter's that night, field trip to a village Saturday, and a planned excursion to the morning market on Sunday which thank goodness they cancelled – the thought of a group of 17 bules plus tutors and administrators traipsing through the narrow aisles of the market is just appalling. I often work longer hours at Yale, but then it's maybe 3 hours of class followed by me getting done what needs to get done, not constantly having things scheduled for me. I wish I had more time to go to cafes and hang out, to see the military museum, to maybe go with my host family to the apple orchards outside town. This is a communicative program; so give me a chance to go out and communicate! I've decided to quit yoga class, which means now I at least have my Thursday afternoons free. This week I went with a little group to the traditional market and bought some batik, then got ice cream. It was fantastic.

The last and most aggravating problem is mostly cultural, I think. I think it's fair to say I'm a pretty independent-minded person – I like doing things my way, by myself. I knew coming in that, living with a host family, I wouldn't get quite the me time I'm used to. But the degree of hand-holding and fussing here is pretty intense. It was two weeks before I was able to walk to school by myself, and even now if they know in advance it's just me I'll get driven in by my host sister. In the market I stood outside a store to send a text while the others went in; one of the tutors immediately came out to stand beside me, saying 'tidak sendiri!' - don't be alone! When I said I liked some of the batik on this rack, three tutors started looking through it for me I can't see it if you're all standing here too...), and when I wanted to buy a shirt, they insisted on doing the bargaining for me. Even walking through the department store on the floor above there was constantly an Indonesian hand on my arm, lest I get lost. I've yet to go to the mall next to campus alone, or anywhere in town. My host family is in Jakarta for a wedding this weekend, but Rani's boyfriend is staying here so I'm not by myself, which actually makes for three of us in the house, since the pembantu is here too. Yesterday, climbing up a hillside from a waterfall, it got a little slippery, and the guide behind me constantly had his hand on my arm making sure I wasn't going to slip, and and when we'd stop to catch our breath he'd start brushing the mud of my back from the one spill I did take (nothing serious, just a little bruise on my bum). I appreciate you wanting to help, but not necessary, really. I feel like a cranky five-year-old – no I wanna do it myself! But I do. Even at school, if I sit off to the side at lunch to get a moment to myself I immediately have five people asking if I'm okay and making small talk. If I'm taking a moment on a field trip, the same thing happens – go interview that person! Try pulling these yams! Listen to my explanation of the significance of these rice fields! Can't a girl catch her breath around here in peace?

The loss of autonomy extends to other things too. I miss deciding what and when to eat – I might be in the mood for just a little toast or fruit for breakfast, but when I get down there's already a whole spread out on the table. It's easy enough just to take a small portion of that (and politely decline when I'm urged to take more), but often they make a special plate of food for me, separate from what everybody else is having, and that's much harder to just eat a bit of. If dinner's a bit late and I'm working in my room, someone will bring up a plate of something as a snack, and then it's a question of balancing wanting to eat what they've brought me but also not wanting to be full before dinner even starts, since they've probably made something special for me there too. It'll be nice to get back to my own quiet, empty apartment, and my own kitchen... Again, we're a group of ambitious, adventurous, self-sufficient students – they kept telling us as much in orientation – but here we don't get much chance to be any of those things. The long weekend in Bali will be nice, away from it all. Don't tell me host family I've got a day all alone in Ubud.

Anyway, rant over. I'm off to Pulau Sempu to go camping in the jungle and swim in a lagoon and hopefully not get eaten by snakes & scorpions. Can't wait :-)

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